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Making Money 

The conceptual art of J.S.G. Boggs.

Wednesday, Aug 4 1999
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Page 3 of 8

After the performance was over, everyone walked down the street to the Jurassic, where Boggs and Weschler signed copies of the book. Boggs, it turned out, was charging $10 to sign Weschler's book about him. Or rather, as he put it to a friend of mine, "It's $10 for an autograph and $100 for a signature." My friend thought he was joking, but it became clear that Boggs wasn't. When a $10 bill was coughed up, Boggs signed. "I always do this anyway," he explained in his oddly hollow voice, "but in this case it's going to a good cause. I'm donating all the money I get from the book signings to the Jurassic."

BOGGS FELL INTO HIS ODD LINE OF WORK, LIKE ALICE falling down the rabbit hole, during a visit to Chicago in May 1984, when he started doodling on a paper napkin in a diner one day and the doodle gradually began to take on the aspect of a $1 bill. The waitress, taken with the doodle, proclaimed it the most beautiful dollar bill she'd ever seen and asked him if she could buy it from him. According to Boggs, the waitress offered him $20 for it, and then $50, neither of which he found acceptable. Then he had an idea. "How much do I owe you for the coffee?" he asked her, to which the answer was 90 cents. "Okay, I'll pay you for it with the drawing," Boggs said, and the waitress accepted his offer with delight. As he was going out the door, she said, "Wait!" -- and brought him a single silver dime in change.

The first Boggs transaction had taken place. In lieu of a real dollar bill, he had paid for something with a drawing of a dollar bill and received change. Boggs knew that something significant had happened, but as yet he wasn't sure what. For a long time afterward he kept the dime in his pocket, rubbing it thoughtfully, taking it out and staring at it, waiting for the genie to appear.

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The genie appeared in London, where Boggs lived from 1978 to 1988. He told an English friend about his Chicago exploit, but was assured that though an American waitress might go for something like that, the English never would. Whereupon, as a kind of challenge, Boggs carefully drew up a one-sided £5 note, and the two friends went out to try and spend it. For an entire day they tramped through London, meeting with bafflement or ridicule every step of the way. But finally, in a pub, they met with success. Boggs showed his drawing to the bartender, asked to buy a beer with it instead of with a real note, and the bartender said, "Sure, I'll take that" -- and thus a small industry, a private economy and a unique form of conceptual art was born.

The authorities took note, and within three years Boggs was on trial at the Old Bailey in London on charges of reproducing British currency. The Bank of England invited the United States Secret Service to join the prosecution, but judging Boggs' work to be within the law, the Secret Service declined, only to reverse its position after Boggs returned to the States. In 1993, after the Secret Service had raided his studio, Boggs filed a suit against the U.S. government, demanding that the Secret Service either return the 1,300 possessions it had confiscated from him or bring him to trial. The suit eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which will announce if it will hear the case sometime this fall. If it does, it is likely to be an extremely lively and entertaining one. Floyd Abrams, the most famous First Amendment lawyer in the country, has filed an amicus brief on Boggs' behalf and believes the case has a twofold significance. "Two things are at issue," he told me over the phone. "One, taken narrowly as a matter of First Amendment law, is the issue of whether the government can step in and seize what are at least presumptively works of art without giving the artist in question any rights at all. More broadly, it's a case which raises issues about how we treat art in our society. It raises questions about whether the Law with a capital 'L' will simply override artistic principles without even a tip of the hat in their direction."

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